Place Names

Some we can explain; some we can’t

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ by William Shakespeare


Learn how we got so many interesting place names

Below: Ones we can explain……and the ones we can’tContradictory names explained?Coastal FeaturesStrange business namesHouse namesEven our island’s name is uncertainIsland in Scotland, UKRead More

A word on apostrophes: these days it is normal to write place names without any apostrophes, even where these are clearly implied in the name. Thus what should be written Munden’s Hill - named after Governor Richard Munden - is almost always written Mundens Hill. In general we have shown place names as they are usually written, without any apostrophes that should really be there{1}.

The ones we can explain…

Below: ‍Alarm Forest‍‍Asses Ears‍‍The Barn‍‍Barracks Square‍‍Bellstone‍‍Bencoolen‍‍Billy Birch‍‍Botanical Gardens‍‍Bottom Woods‍‍Bradley’s‍‍Broad Bottom‍‍Button-Coat Corner‍‍Casons‍‍China Lane‍‍Chubb’s Spring‍‍Cow Path‍‍Deadwood‍‍Drummond Hay Square‍‍The Dungeon‍‍Field Road‍‍Francis Plain‍‍Frenchman’s Turning‍‍Geranium Valley‍‍Guinea Grass‍‍Half Tree Hollow‍‍Half Way House‍‍Halley’s Mount‍‍Hay Town‍‍Head O’Wain‍‍Hutts Gate‍‍Jamestown‍‍Kingshurst‍‍Kunjie Field‍‍Ladder Hill‍‍Lemon Valley‍‍Longwood‍‍Lot‍ & ‍Lot’s Wife‍‍Maldivia Gardens‍‍Man & Horse Cliff‍‍Maskelyne’s Observatory‍‍Mole Spider Hill‍‍Mulberry Gut‍‍New Ground‍‍Piccolo Hill‍‍Pierie’s Revenge‍‍Prosperous Bay Plain‍‍Putty Hill‍‍Ropery Field‍‍The Run‍‍Ruperts‍‍Sane Valley‍‍Sapper Way‍‍Scotland‍‍Sex Garage‍‍Shy Road‍‍Sisters Walk‍‍Thompsons Wood‍‍Three Tanks‍‍Trapp Cot‍‍Turks Cap‍‍Two Gun Saddle‍‍Valley of the Willows‍

‍Alarm Forest‍ So named because Alarm Forest was originally an area of woodland surrounding Alarm House. Prior to 1692 two guns were stationed here which were fired to raise the alarm whenever unknown ships were sighted in James Bay.

‍Asses Ears‍ A rock formation on the Southern coast (West of Sandy Bay) which looks like a pair of Asses (Donkeys) Ears{2}.

The Barn behind Longwood
The Barn behind Longwood

‍The Barn‍ There are two places called ‘The Barn’ - one in Longwood and one in Sandy Bay. The latter is commonly known as ‘The ‍Sandy Bay Barn‍’. Both are so named because they look like…a barn{2}.

‍Barracks Square‍ What is now Pilling School was once a garrison of The East India Company accommodating ordinary soldiers. Officers occupied houses around the square itself with sergeants’ quarters being at the upper end of the square.

‍Bellstone‍ An area in the Levelwood District where a large, isolated rock rings when tapped with a stone.

Bencoolen on map by Royal Engineers, 1872
Bencoolen on map by Royal Engineers, 1872

‍Bencoolen‍ Named after the former British possession in what is now Indonesia, Governor Isaac Pyke was sent there in 1719 after his first term here, and christened the area when he returned for his second term, though we don’t know why. The name does not tend to appear on modern maps.

‍Billy Birch‍ A rock outcrop just north-east of Sandy Bay beach, it carries the name of one William Birch, son of Thomas Birch, killed on 17th June 1693 by falling from the top while herding goats. The name does not tend to appear on modern maps.

‍Botanical Gardens‍ Towards the top end of Market Street in Jamestown, until 1792 this ground was wasteland. It was converted into gardens by soldiers who chose labour as an alternative to corporal punishment (which was fairly brutal in those days). In 1829 it was proposed to do away with the gardens, it having been replaced by Sisters Walk, and it was allowed to decay until the end of the 19th Century when the land was handed over to the War Office for extension of the Jamestown Barracks. The area is now housing, with only the road sign marking its former location.

‍Bottom Woods‍ Why should a housing area on high ground with few trees be so named? The answer is that this area was originally part of the Great Wood, an endemic forest which encompassed much of the north-west of St Helena until it was destroyed by introduced goats and cut down for firewood by settlers.

‍Bradley’s‍ (Garage) Now used for industrial purposes the structure here was built to house the receiving equipment for the Diplomatic Wireless Station. We assume ‘Bradley’ to have been an earlier owner of the land.

‍Broad Bottom‍ Unlike most of the Island’s valleys, which are normally narrow and steep-sided, Broad Bottom widens out and forms a fine flat piece of arable land. It was chosen as the site of one of the Boer PoW camps.

Button-Coat Corner on the 1872 Royal Engineers map
Button-Coat Corner on the 1872 Royal Engineers map

‍Button-Coat Corner‍ This is the first sharp turn on the road out of Jamestown through Seaview. It is reputedly so-named because at this point the soldiers marching up towards Longwood first became exposed to the south-westerly wind, and hence would be allowed to stop and button-up their tunics{3}.

‍Casons‍ Originally land owned by Ensign Thomas Cason, a soldier of The East India Company, but re-purchased by the Company on 3rd July 1711. Contrary to what might be expected Thomas Cason did not leave the island at this time; continuing in service he is commended for his efficiency in the Records for 1734. Today the land features two arboretums and the St Helena Donkey Home.

‍China Lane‍ The name is connected to the indentured Chinese labour used on the island after the abolition of slavery. One of the main Chinese settlements was near the quarry opposite to China Lane on the eastern side of the valley.

‍Chubb’s Spring‍ Chubb was a soldier brought here by Governor Blackmore in 1678, granted land in 1682. The spring from his land, in the valley below High Knoll Fort, provides a plentiful source of water for Jamestown.

‍Cow Path‍ This is both a housing area that lies above Half Tree Hollow and also the route formerly used to take cows down to Jamestown, specifically Maldivia Gardens, for slaughter. Parts of the old cattle path are still visible below High Knoll Fort and it is thought the cow path was the only route up the western side of the valley until Governor Pyke cut what became Shy Road and upper Ladder Hill Road in the early 18th Century.

‍Deadwood‍ This area lies with what was once the Great Wood. It was one of the first areas to be completely destroyed, supposedly getting its name from the resulting number of dead tree stumps.

‍Drummond Hay Square‍ Drummond Hay Square in upper Jamestown is named after Governor Edward Hay Drummond Hay, who also built Hay Town in Ruperts Valley. Drummond Hay Square replaced the earlier Chinese area (after which China Lane is named).

The Dungeon
The Dungeon{a}

‍The Dungeon‍ Not a dungeon at all - there isn’t even a castle! Actually a corruption from the French ‘donjon’, a tower, after the (now ruined) defensive tower nearby. The island’s only non-consecrated burial ground is here.

‍Field Road‍ The road into Ruperts is called Field Road, even though Ruperts is pretty arid with not a field in sight. The road is named after Governor John Osbaldiston Field, in whose time it was constructed.

‍Francis Plain‍ Formerly the ‘Water Fall Plain’. Referred to in 1692 as Henry Francis land neere High Water Fall and neere the Peake Hill. The name seems to have stuck! The history of the area can be read on our St Pauls page.

‍Frenchman’s Turning‍ This is the tightest bend on the lower part of Ladder Hill Road. A former French Consul drove off the road at this point and came to rest 60m below. Surprisingly he lived to tell the tale.

‍Geranium Valley‍ - see Sane Valley.

‍Guinea Grass‍ In January 1789 The East India Company sent Guinea Grass megathyrsus maximus seed to St Helena, simply because it was exotic but for no other apparent purpose. It seems to have been planted in this area.

‍Half Tree Hollow‍ The name is derived from an earlier name ‘Half Way Tree’, a burial site in the 17th century. From the Records:

The area was also used to graze cattle. An alternative explanation of the name comes from Benjamin Grant in ‘A Few Notes on St Helena’, 1879: Above Ladder Hill is Half-tree-Hollow, so called from the number of stumps of trees which were to be seen in the locality up to 80 or 90 years ago; but at the present day the particular spot is entirely denuded of trees, although many fir trees still exist at no great distance.

‍Half Way House‍ This name is usually applied to the former school building about ‘half way’ between Half Tree Hollow and Red Gate, but actually this is incorrect. The actual Half Way House is a ruin just south of the old school building.

‍Halley’s Mount‍ is the hill on which Edmond Halley sited his observatory (see also Maskelyne’s Observatory).

‍Hay Town‍ This is the name given to the line of houses in Ruperts Valley. One of these houses is called ‘Hay Town House’ and the name is thought to derive from the name of the governor at the time the first house was built, Governor Edward Hay Drummond Hay (1856-1863).

‍Head O’Wain‍ Originally ‘Headland of Swain’ but corrupted while being passed down through the generations. The 1872 Royal Engineers map has it as ‘Head of the Vein’ (Map VI).

‍Hutts Gate‍ Not, as you might imagine, a gate belonging to a Mr. Hutt; actually the place was earlier known as ‘The Hutts’, from the rudimentary buildings erected in the 17th Century to house the enslaved working in the area. It became a Gate because it was one of the boundaries of Napoleon’s roaming area, and therefore a sentry post was positioned on the road.

‍Jamestown‍ Named in 1660 in honour of James, Duke of York, the second surviving son of King Charles I and brother of King Charles II; later King James II. James Bay was christened at the same time.

‍Kingshurst‍ Originally ‘Hing’s Hurst’. The land originally belonged a Chinaman, Ah Hing and Hurst is an old English word for a small woodland. Mostly known now for the Kinghshurst Community Centre, the centre for the St Pauls district.

‍Kunjie Field‍ Probably related to the indentured Chinese Labourers who were here in the 19th Century - ‘Conjee’ (rice water) is a common low-status Chinese dish. Or it may relate to Indian workers, who have a similar foodstuff called ‘Kanji’. Presumably this was where the rice was grown.

Thornton, 1702-7
Thornton, 1702-7

‍Ladder Hill‍ It’s called Ladder Hill because Jacob’s Ladder runs up it, right? Actually, no. While it is commonly assumed that ‘Ladder Hill’ is so named because it is ascended by our Seven Wonders tourist attraction, Jacob’s Ladder, this is actually not the case - the name is much older. The name Ladder Hill appears in the Records for 1695 and a route by that name is reported as having been ‘improved’ in 1718{4}, but the Jacob’s Ladder we know today was not created until the Inclined Plane was broken up in 1871. Ladder Hill is so-named because of the rope ladder that was the first means of ascent, prior to the construction of either the roadway we now know as Shy Road/Ladder Hill Road or the Inclined Plane. You can see this ladder on a 1702-7 map by Thornton (right). Hence the hill became Ladder Hill, the road when built was Ladder Hill Road and the fort was Ladder Hill Fort, all long before our Jacob’s Ladder was constructed.

‍Lemon Valley‍ Once filled with lemon trees, planted so that passing ships could take on lemons to alleviate Scurvy. Sadly introduced diseases killed them all by the middle of the 19th Century and today no lemon trees remain in Lemon Valley.

‍Longwood‍ Today Longwood has few trees, but this area was originally part of the Great Wood, an endemic forest which encompassed much of the north-west of St Helena until it was destroyed by introduced goats and cut down for firewood by settlers.

‍Lot‍ & ‍Lot’s Wife‍ Two rock pillars in lower Sandy Bay. The name derives from The Bible, Genesis 19, where Lot’s wife disobeys God and gets turned into a pillar of salt (verse 26). The naming is somewhat fanciful because, according to the Bible story, Lot’s wife was turned to salt, not stone, and Lot himself lived to tell the tale. But why let details spoil a cool name?

Signpost, St Pauls

‍Maldivia Gardens‍ The area behind the General Hospital. In 1735 an English ship picked up ten Maldivians adrift in a boat 725Km off St Helena. Seven of them survived and were put to work making a new plantation garden which still bears the name of their place of birth, Maldivia. The house was originally known as Concord House.

‍Man & Horse Cliff‍ This is another name recalling a precipitous fall. On this occasion a man galloped his horse over the cliff and fell 180m to his death. Today the name seems strange: there is no horse, of course, and as this is one of the least populated parts of the island, usually no man either! Maybe it’s just a local myth and there is an alternative true explanation for the name.

‍Maskelyne’s Observatory‍ is the site on which Nevil Maskelyne sited his observatory (see also Halley’s Mount).

‍Mole Spider Hill‍ A hill on Prosperous Bay Plain originally thought to contain the island’s only population of Mole Spiders. We say ‘originally thought to’ because, after the airport project had built the runway on a sub-optimal alignment to avoid disturbing the spiders it was discovered that actually the Mole Spiders don’t live there - they live somewhere else. Napoleon’s Curse anybody?

‍Mulberry Gut‍ An area near Longwood in which Mulberry bushes were planted to provide food for Silk Production. The bushes remain; the silkworms do not.

‍New Ground‍ An area of St Pauls nowadays used for housing, but the area is not new. In 1708 ‘New Ground’ was designated as a site for a new plantation to be worked by the enslaved.

Piccolo Hill
House, Piccolo Hill

‍Piccolo Hill‍ A collection of houses built for the ex-pat staff of the Diplomatic Wireless Station, and named after ‘Piccolo’, the encrypted communications system they used. After the DWS closed the houses were briefly used as ‘holiday cottages’ and for a time were again used to house ex-pat staff. From 2020 they were used by Social Services for sheltered housing.

‍Pierie’s Revenge‍ The place above Ladder Hill Road, between Frenchman’s Turning and the top, from which the 1890 rockfall occurred. Pierie was The East India Company’s engineer in the late 18th Century, and always rode his horse quickly past this place because he feared a rockfall. Nowadays there is a brick buttress that was positioned after the 1890 fall to shore up the remaining rock.

‍Prosperous Bay Plain‍ Location of our Airport and named after one of the ships under Captain Keigwin that helped re-capture the Island from the Dutch in 1673{5}.

‍Putty Hill‍ So named because of the stickiness of the clay on the hill in wet weather (which may explain why Governor John Blackmore fell to his death from here in December 1690).

‍Ropery Field‍ Probably one of the fields where the flax was laid out before being twined into rope

‍The Run‍ So-named because the water from the ‘Heart Shaped Waterfall’ runs down ‘The Run’ to the sea{2}

‍Ruperts‍ Named after a ‘Rupert’ but there is some dispute over which one… see the page.

‍Sane Valley‍, previously known as ‘The Valley of the Willows’ and also as ‘Geranium Valley’, a valley on the northern side of the road to Longwood, before Hutts Gate. Now mostly known as the valley in which Napoleon’s Tomb is located.

‍Sapper Way‍ A road in the New Ground area that was cut by the Royal Engineers{6} in 1977.

‍Scotland‍ Forest, but definitely no lochs or mountains! Apparently the property was purchased in 1834 by one John Scott, and hence the name Scott Land. Previously the land was the property of the Beale family, whose ancestor was Governor Beale. See also the link to the UK (below).

Sex Garage sign

‍Sex Garage‍ Apparently a local building is locally known as the ‘Sex Garage’. The reason is that at some time somebody had graffitied on it Too much sex is bad for one - but great for two! (photo, right) and although this witticism was painted out in the early 2000s, the name stuck. There is, however, some dispute as to which building this refers to. Some say it is the Government Garage at Bradley’s, but the consensus is that the Sex Garage is the one that stands at the end of the Peaks road, long past the donkeys, and where one would pause to look down at the full basin of Sandy Bay. The garage faced the road just when you would swing a right to descend the turns to Thompson’s Wood.

Bishop Welby
Bishop Welby

‍Shy Road‍ is one of the older Roads out of Jamestown. It runs up from behind the Museum of St Helena to meet Ladder Hill Road about half way up and was the original cart-route up from Jamestown (the link to China Lane was added later). We think its name may relate to the story of the death of Bishop Welby on 6th January 1899. He died on this road when the horse pulling his trap ‘shied’ and ran out-of-control, tipping him over the edge to his death. A local ghost story is related to the incident telling of a ghostly cleric in a pony-trap.

Sign error

‍Sisters Walk‍ More properly ‘Sisters’ Walk’ but usually written without the apostrophe, or wrongly as in the (recent) signpost (right), this is the footpath connecting the wharf to Napoleon Street on the east side of James Valley. It was created by Governor Robert Patton (1801-1807) for the use of his two daughters for exercise and fresh air, the name being derived from this (which is why Sister’s Walk is wrong…).

‍Thompsons Wood‍ The name probably started as ‘Tombstone’ Wood due to the fallen rocks that have rolled down the slopes and come to rest on the bottom land. When viewed from a distance the rocks appear to be the work of monumental masons and the arrangement of the rocks gives the appearance of a graveyard. Nearby, a similar rolling rock resting place is called ‘The Graveyard’. There did used to be a wood here, but no longer. The area is used for camping, particularly at Easter.

‍Three Tanks‍ The Three Tanks are actual water tanks, placed in lower Half Tree Hollow in 1916. They are such a landmark the name is now commonly used to identify the surrounding area.

‍Trapp Cot‍ From the Records:

The Turks Cap
The Turks Cap

‍Turks Cap‍ (it should, correctly, be written ‘Turk’s Cap’ but nobody bothers with apostrophes anymore!) They don’t come much easier than this! It’s a hill shaped like a traditional Turkish cap…

‍Two Gun Saddle‍ A turning on the road up from Jamestown towards Alarm Forest, just above Button-Coat Corner. ‘Saddle’ is an old name for a gun platform, and this is where two defensive guns were placed.

‍Valley of the Willows‍ - see Sane Valley.

…and the ones we can’t

At first sight some of our place names seem quite illogical.

Below: ‍Barren Ground‍‍Botley’s Lay‍‍Cleughs Plain‍‍Constitution Hill‍‍Donkey Plain‍‍Flagstaff‍‍Frightus Rock‍‍The Gumwoods‍‍Horse Pasture‍‍Levelwood‍‍Nosegay Lane‍‍Old Woman’s Valley‍‍Seaview‍‍Sharks Valley‍‍The Castle of Otranto‍

Wild flowers growing in ‘Barren Ground’
Wild flowers growing in ‘Barren Ground’

‍Barren Ground‍ (Blue Hill) Actually lushly vegetated (picture, right) so the name ‘Barren Ground’ is completely inappropriate. (More on our Blue Hill page.)

‍Botley’s Lay‍ (Blue Hill) We assume there was a Botley (hence the apostrophe) but cannot find any mention of him(?) in the Records. There is also a nearby Botley’s Point on older maps.

‍Cleughs Plain‍ (Or, maybe, Cleugh’s - we haven’t got a cleugh…) Hilly; definitely not a ‘plain’. In the Records for 23rd January 1778 as Dr Moore’s Plain{7} and by Hudson Ralph Janisch as ‘Clues Plain’.

‍Constitution Hill‍ An old road out of Jamestown. Still in use and recently refurbished, it runs up to The Briars from the top (southern end) of town. There is no apparent link to the island’s Constitution. One theory goes that it is so named because you need a strong constitution to climb it!

‍Donkey Plain‍ A quarry area on the headland west of Half Tree Hollow with no sign of any donkeys and not actually shaped as a plain.

‍Flagstaff‍ One of the early lookout points, abandoned in 1692 due to the frequent low cloud in favour of Prosperous Bay Signal Station. Originally ‘Matts Mount’ (who was Matt?); renamed perhaps because a flag was flown there? A ship arriving from the south east might spot this point first, so it would have been a logical place to fly a flag identifying the island as a possession of The East India Company.

‍Frightus Rock‍ Maybe there was a Mr Frightus (or some such) or maybe it’s because the route up is so scary a Saint once said it fright us.

‍The Gumwoods‍ The Gumwoods is a small settlement in St Pauls. Gumwoods once covered the island but were almost extinct when the inner island was settled, so we can find no reason why this area bears the name. Please contact us if you know…

‍Horse Pasture‍ There have been no horses on St Helena since the 1980s, and in any case the area is sufficiently remote from Jamestown to have been an unlikely place to pasture horses needed for daily use. One suggested explanation is that in the 1600s horses escaped from captivity and established themselves in this remote spot, but we can find no Records to confirm this. The area has traditionally been used for camping, particularly at Easter, but following the sale of the land for the Trade Winds project its future is uncertain (see our Blue Hill page).

‍Levelwood‍ Actually a steep valley so not remotely a Level Wood.

No Entry

‍Nosegay Lane‍ Nosegay Lane is a narrow link-road that runs from Napoleon Street down to The Bridge, coming out beside The Standard. A ‘nosegay’ is a small flower bouquet or ‘posy’, typically given as a gift. So was there a flower seller in Nosegay Lane, or is there some other reason? Well actually we may have an explanation for this one, but maybe not. Nosegay Lane runs for much of its (meagre) length alongside The Run and it is known that, at least until the early 20th Century, this was little more than an open sewer. Our suggestion is that the smell from the Run was so intense that people held bunches of flowers against their noses when travelling up or down this route, to alleviate the smell (the pocket full of posies in the nursery rhyme). Well, it’s a theory… Melliss’ 1839 map gives it no name (The back road to the Bazaar & Bridge). Incidentally, until 10th July 1981 two-way traffic was permitted in Nosegay Lane!

‍Old Woman’s Valley‍ A strenuous walk, only for the young and fit - definitely not suitable for old women (or old men, for that matter).

‍Seaview‍ Yes, you can see the sea from here - but also from just about everywhere else on the island!

‍Sharks Valley‍ (Levelwood). We have been told that the original name was ‘Shirks Valley’, it being a place where the work-shy (‘shirkers’) were sent as a punishment, but we are unable to confirm this from the old maps, so it may be just a folk-tale. The name appears as ‘Shark’s Valley’ on the Royal Engineers’ 1872 map suggesting the valley once belonged to someone named Shark.

‍The Castle of Otranto‍ This one is quite a puzzle! Read our page The Castle of Otranto to learn more.

Contradictory names explained?

One possible explanation for some of the contradictory names goes as follows: Most Saints have nicknames, and often these are deliberately contradictory. ‘Polar Bear’ was a chap with very dark skin. So is ‘Seabird’. So maybe these place names are intentionally the opposite of the true description. Perhaps Barren Ground is so named because it is so fertile. If you can verify this, or have another theory, please contact us.

Coastal Features

This map dates from 1884 but is particularly useful for identifying the old names of the island’s costal features, many of which doubtless have an interesting story behind them.

Strange business names

Some business names can seem strange too. What would you expect for ‘The Rose & Crown’, ‘The Queen Mary’ and ‘The Victoria’? Pubs? No, they are all shops{8}. And how about ‘The Standard’? A newspaper? No, it’s a bar! ‘Tinkers’ doesn’t sell household utensils; it’s a frozen food shop and ‘Little Italy’ sounds like a restaurant but actually it’s a grocery shop. It has been suggested that the shops with pub-sounding names might actually once have been taverns, and have retained their names but not their use - there was, for example, a Victoria Tavern (the Records mention a public meeting being held there on 26th August 1852{9}), but we don’t certainly know if it was located where is the current shop{10}. We can, however, definitely explain ‘The Hive’

House names

There is a convention amongst Saints to name your house based on some coalition of the names of the residents. So a house owned by John and Sarah might be called ‘Jorah’ or ‘Sahrohn’. You can readily spot these in the ‘phone book. On this basis the author’s home should be called ‘Jocaanha’, but actually we call it Frith’s Cottage (see the website to find out why…).

Even our island’s name is uncertain

If all of the above wasn’t enough, even our island’s name is uncertain!

St Helena Island in Scotland, UK

In addition to there being a ‘Scotland’ in St Helena, there is also a ‘St Helena Island’ in Scotland, UK!

1.5km SSW of Glenluce, St Helena Island is not a true island, though it can become one at very high tide. The photo looks across Luce Bay, a military Danger Zone, to the Mull of Galloway.{d}

Why does this glorified mudflat shares our island’s name? Apparently an Admiral Dalrymple Hay, who owned the land in the 19th Century, visited our St Helena, where he took cuttings from a tree growing on Napoleon’s grave and planted them here. The area has been known ever since as St Helena Island (even though it isn’t even really an island). From the photograph there’s no sign of the Admiral’s tree…

There are other places in the world named St Helena.

Read More

Below: Article: St Helena Place-NamesArticle: Mountains or Molehills over peaks controversy

Article: St Helena Place-Names

St. Helena, an island of 47 square miles lying 1,000 miles off the west coast of Africa, is, I suggest, of interest to students of place-names.

A fascinating article about the history and origins of our place names.

Article: Mountains or Molehills over peaks controversy

By Nick Hewes, published in the St Helena Independent 19th May 2006{11}

One day at the end of 2004 the Conservation Group went for a walk along the high ridge that forms the Diana’s Peak National Park. The main ridge runs more or less from east to west, cutting right across the middle of St Helena. As one passes from peak to peak, the views are, at least on a clear day, quite astounding. In some places the ridge is no more than a few feet wide, so that you are able to take in uninterrupted vistas to the north and south at the same time.

When our party arrived at the last of the three peaks (that is, the most easterly), Mount Actaeon, we all sat down for a rest. Glancing at an Ordnance Survey map, it was interesting to note that our whereabouts was designated, not as Mount Actaeon at all, but rather, as Cuckhold’s Point. Whereas the St Helena National Trust map listed Cuckhold’s as the most western of the three peaks. Obviously a rare Ordnance Survey printing error, I thought. Little did I realise that I’d just stumbled upon a truly bizarre mix up over the proper names of any of St Helena’s three peaks.

For the fact is, all three peaks - Mount Actaeon, Diana’s Peak and Cuckhold’s Point - have shared each other’s names at various points of history. As a recent St Helena National Trust document says,

The names of the three peaks have been recorded differently on various maps over time, which has and still is causing some controversy.

Some of the various versions of the naming of the peaks are listed below (with acknowledgements and thanks to the St Helena National Trust).

From the west, Cuckhold’s - Diana’s - Actaeon:

From the west, Actaeon - Diana’s - Cuckhold’s:

What is even more remarkable is that some maps even disagree on which peak is the highest. On some maps Diana’s Peak is given as the highest point, but many other sources - John Melliss, in 1875 for example{13} - instead list Actaeon as the highest. This may not sound like much to worry about, but don’t forget that you are talking about a country and its highest peak. The fact that there is confusion about the name of the highest point on the Island is touchingly and eccentrically odd - a bit like the Welsh not being able to agree on whether Snowdon or Cader Idris is their tallest mountain! As one commentator told me,

It’s so weird that this confusion could have come about on such a small island.

Sources showing Actaeon as the highest point include the following:

The Independent asked Dr. Rebecca Cairns Wicks, at the St Helena National Trust, about the controversy.

The first time I became aware of the confusion was ten years ago, when the Ashmoles were researching for their book on the natural history of St Helena. They wanted to get the names of the peaks right. At that time we were using Doug Smith’s interpretation{14}. Doug himself had based the names on the system adopted by George Benjamin, (working for A&NRD at the time), and George in his turn was going on the local knowledge of the time. It was a word-of-mouth thing really. So now our nomenclature [naming system] is just based on what we’ve been told. I’m sure that other people though, might see things differently. Some will say that Diana is the highest peak, and others will plump for Mount Actaeon. That’s how it’s always been. The mapmakers, now and in the past, will generally have gone and asked ordinary people about the names of local features; they will then base their maps on this information. I suspect that is what happened when the most recent Ordnance Survey map was being prepared. They just asked locals for their versions of the names. The names have been changed several times in the past. What can you do? How far do you go back? Do you go right back to the original nomenclature, or do you simply accept the most recent changes? It is a real problem at the moment because the maps produced by the Tourist Office and the Conservation Group tell you different things. In short, Actaeon and Cuckhold’s have been reversed. It would make sense to know which way round we’re getting it.

Rebecca says that another change in the names of the peaks would make life very difficult for the team of conservation workers who work on the ridges.

For the guys who work on the peaks, it makes much more sense to keep things as they are. We [the conservationists] are the only people who have consistently been up there over the last ten years. We’ve been managing 81 hectares, which have been divided into 69 different packets of land, each one of which has its own label. The people who work there have all these names in their heads. If we changed the names again, it would cause great difficulty in how to interpret the working records. If someone were told to go and irrigate Actaeon No. III, for example, it could be very confusing, because Mount Actaeon would be in a different place - it would have fundamentally changed its whereabouts! So all the workers would have to check and double-check these details on a daily basis, to make sure they were working in the right place.

The Head of the Tourist Office, Pamela Young, was asked for her opinion on the confusion over the names of the peaks. She said that even amongst Saints there is disagreement.

We’ve had queries from locals, and there is definitely a difference of opinion about which Peak is which. There is a basic contradiction about the names. I went up there at Christmas with a group of 12 local people, ranging from 47 to 62 years of age. Every member of that group insisted that the names of the peaks were different to how they remembered them, and that therefore the signs were incorrect. According to their memories, the names were the same as the OS map.

Lastly, The Independent paid a visit to the Legal and Lands Department, in order to ask the Planning Officer, Mr Gavin George for his views on the matter. He told me,

From a personal point of view, I would say that, as an Islander, Cuckhold’s is the most easterly peak - that is, the one nearest to Rock Rose and Levelwood. And there are good historical reasons backing that up. For example, a Royal Artillery map of 1850, and also a Royal Engineers’ map of 1872, show Cuckhold’s to the east. Even as a boy I can remember Actaeon to be in the west; that is, the same as the OS maps.

Gavin says that the confusion is not just an academic matter. It could have serious consequences.

Imagine if a tourist seriously injured themselves on what is, according to the sign, Mount Actaeon. One of the injured person’s companions runs for help and rings the emergency services. Off goes the ambulance, and the navigator takes them, according to his or her Ordnance Survey map, to Mount Actaeon. Unfortunately however, they end up looking on completely the wrong hill, because the Tourist map and the sign contradict each other! It first came to light for me when I went walking a few months ago. The people I was with noticed a discrepancy between our map and the sign. They actually gave me some flak because they thought, what with me working in planning, that I must have changed the map!

How should the confusion be resolved?

I think that you should always go back to the source. One reason for doing that is that the changes in the names are quite recent. Why should history be changed, just because mistakes have been made in the recent past! Something’s got to give, because at the moment tourists who come here are quite confused, due to the signs saying something different to the maps. Rebecca and her team are following the knowledge that they have inherited from her predecessor. There are good reasons for doing that, but there is no possibility that the Ordnance Survey maps will be changed.

Perhaps the last word on this fascinating contradiction should be given to the writer and historian Ian Mathieson. In his guidebook Exploring St Helena: A Walker’s Guide, Mathieson writes,

The names of the three peaks are the subject of one of St Helena’s more extraordinary and long-running controversies. The case has been argued for the sequence of names to run, from the south, Diana - Actaeon - Cuckhold’s; or Actaeon - Diana - Cuckhold’s. The sequence used in this description is that used on the current maps (Cuckhold’s - Diana - Actaeon) but as to which is ‘correct’ there will probably never be agreement.

Um…‘Barren’ Ground?

{a} Six Months A Saint{b} Basil Drabble{c} St Helena News Review, 10th July 1981{d} www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1654989, Retrieved 4th June 2016{11}

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{1} Even though this is totally contrary to what the editor of this website learned in school!{2} Names don’t have to be clever or complicated{3} We have our doubts! Allowing soldiers to stop an orderly march purely for their personal comfort? Seems unlikely, but that’s the story…{4} The improvement seems to have been made more to make invaders using it (as the Dutch did) more visible than for the convenience of travellers.{5} The other ship was ‘Assistance’ so Prosperous Bay could easily have been Assistance Bay.{6} ‘Sapper’ is a slang term for a soldier, particularly an engineer.{7} We are not sure who ‘Dr Moore’ might have been. There was a Francis Moore on the island in the 1670s and in an item dated 19th December 1673 he is referred to as a Chirurgeon, i.e. a surgeon, so we guess it was him. He left the island in the late 1670s.{8} Though a pub with the name ‘Rose & Crown’ did exist near Hutts Gate in the 19th Century.{9} .{10} The building housing the Victoria shop was, incidentally, owned by the Salvation Army from 1892 - their first premises on the island.{11} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{12} Anthony Nelson, 2000, ISBN 0 904614 61 1.{13} ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875.{14} Doug was a naturalist who had come out here from the UK on a DFID contract.

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